It was grading night at the dojo, for the kyu belt ranks only. All the dojos I've belonged to have used the Judo kyu/dan system. There are six kyu levels or ranks before the dan or black belt levels. The kyu belt colors, in order of lowest to the highest rank, are white, yellow, orange, green, blue, and brown.
I was looking forward to my first grading. I'd practiced the techniques and the kata (form, pattern of movements) required for my grading. I was ready. I knew the material so well that other students would ask me to practice with them before class, just to review the kata. I was happy to oblige. The more practice, the better.
Those who were grading performed the basics as a group. For the katas, each person was to demonstrate that alone. I sat on the floor at the edge of the dojo, waiting for my turn. Sensei called me up. I walked to the place on the floor where I was to start from. I bowed and announced the name of the kata. Sensei nodded his head to indicate that I begin.
I moved into yoi (ready) position and then started moving through the kata. A few moves in, my mind went blank. My brain, and subsequently my body, froze. As hard as I tried, I couldn't retrieve the next move from my memory. Sensei told me to start again. I did, and the same thing happened. The third time didn't go any better. Sensei told me to sit down.
I was frustrated with myself. I had never experienced stage fright before. Then again, I'd never physically performed as an individual in public. I'd only done so as part of a group. I wasn't used to being the center of attention, and it made me feel uncomfortable.
After the grading was over, Sensei called me over to him. He asked what had gone wrong. I told him I didn't know. He said that he knew that I knew the kata. He had watched me do it many times. He told me that he was promoting me to the next rank this time, and if I ever did that again, he would fail me. I thanked him. Although Sensei promoted me to the next kyu belt level, I knew I had failed.
Years later, I was to be interviewed for television about the Tai Chi classes I taught. Before it started, the reporter asked me a few questions to set up the interview. I was calm and relaxed until the interview began.
As soon as the first question left her mouth, I was wide-eyed with a deadpan expression on my face. My voice was robotic and stilted. The woman kept asking questions in the attempt to help me loosen up and talk more freely, to no avail.
To make matters worse, the footage was aired on the newscast that night. It was painful to watch. Yes, it was as bad as I thought it would be.
A few years ago, I was traveling with our martial arts organization in Los Angeles. In addition to attending martial arts events, we went to the Magic Castle. It's a private magicians' club. The head of our organization is a member, and he wanted us to experience this venue.
We arrived at the club, dressed in our finery. After we ate a splendid meal, we toured around looking at the different displays that recounted the history of magic. Then we went to an auditorium where a magician was to perform a magic show.
I'd never been to a live show, so I was pretty excited to be in the audience. I was enjoying the show until 'it' happened. The magician stated that he needed an assistant to help him with the next part of his act. He asked if the lady in the red dress would come on stage to help him.
I wanted to emphatically shake my head no to decline, but my body was frozen. I could hear some members of our group loudly encouraging me to get on the stage. Why did I wear the red dress??? It singled me out. I could feel my mind going blank.
And then something new happened. I decided to not give into the stage fright. I had to look at what I was experiencing differently than I had in the past.
First, I needed to reframe it in my mind. I said to myself, "This is probably the only opportunity you will ever have to stand on a stage with a magician." Next, I needed to think of someone with a good stage presence to emulate. I saw a picture of her in my mind. Then I said to myself, "I am channeling my inner Vanna White."
I stood up and confidently walked up the stairs and onto the stage. I focused all of my attention on the magician and followed his instructions. I lived in the moment. It also helped that the stage lights were so bright that I couldn't see the audience.
Getting off the stage was another problem. The lights were so bright, I couldn't see the stairs to walk down them. I paused, trying to visually discern the location of the first step. Fortunately, the magician was good at reading body language (as I'm sure they all are). He walked over to me, held my left hand, and guided me down the stairs. Thank goodness chivalry was not dead.
Although my stage fright initially led me to failure, it taught me lessons over time:
1) I learned how to turn a weakness into a strength, by challenging my belief system.
2) When you live in the moment, fully present, there is no fear.
3) Being a magician's assistant was fun.
3) The red dress was the best apparel purchase I've ever made,
The most important lesson I've learned in the martial arts is that many of the battles you fight in life are within yourself.
Addendum: After reading this post, one of my students asked if I had passed my next grading. The answer is yes.
Next week: I Belong Here
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
I knew I wanted to continue studying the martial arts while I was attending university. It would bring a balance to my academic studies and help me to manage stress. Ju-Jitsu wasn't taught on campus, and I'd tried Aikido for a semester, but it wasn't a good fit for me.
So I went back to the list of extra-curricular activities offered at the athletic center. Let's see....karate. I knew it involved kicking and punching. We'd done some of that at the Ju-jitsu dojo. What the heck, I'd give that a try.
The first night, I arrived early. The sensei was already there, along with some black belt students. I watched as the rest of the class filtered in. Then the sensei began the class by telling us to line up.
We lined up in order of rank. The person with the highest rank is at the far right. Everyone else stands to the left of the person who is of a higher rank. Being my first night in attendance, I stood at the end of the line, wearing a white belt.
Although I had a higher rank in Ju-jitsu, I chose to wear a white belt because I was new to this martial art. I had read that this was proper etiquette. To do otherwise would have been disrespectful. You only get one chance to make a good first impression. I didn't want to blow that on the first night.
After the formal opening of the class, we did the warm-up and stretching exercises. This was followed by the repetitive practice of basic techniques. It was so much better than I'd imagined it would be. In addition to the kicks and punches, there were blocks and strikes and proper stances.
The class was challenging. It tested my endurance physically, mentally, and emotionally. Learning the new movements felt awkward and right at the same time. Karate felt like a form of exercise with meaning and purpose. There was a reason for every movement you executed, and you needed to learn how to do each one correctly. I knew this was an environment where I could thrive.
After the class ended, the sensei called me over to him and asked what my previous training had been. After I told him, he said that I could wear the colored belt of my rank in Ju-jitsu. I respectfully declined and requested his permission to begin as a white belt and earn my way through the ranks. He agreed.
I went back to the next class, and the class after that. I enjoyed everything about karate. You trained as an individual, with a partner, and within a group. There was no competition. Everyone gave their best and worked together.
The structure, discipline, and etiquette helped to ground me throughout my time at the university. When I was in the dojo, I always knew what was expected of me. There was never any uncertainty or awkwardness, as there is in some social settings. It was always consistent and reliable.
Out of the three martial arts I had studied up to that point, karate was the one that felt the most comfortable to me. I'm glad I kept looking for the right one. The third time was a charm.
Next week: Learning from Failure
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
I began studying the martial arts to learn how to defend myself, prior to moving to Toronto to attend college. As it turned out, I didn't go to college. Instead, I went to the University of Guelph. Writing about the reason for this seemed more fitting in my Dog Blog. I wrote about it in these two posts, Part 1 and Part 2.
I started midway through the academic year, and I drove back and forth from home every day. I continued my training in Ju-jitsu during that time and the following summer. From my second semester onward, I lived in Guelph.
I wanted to continue my martial arts training. Ju-jitsu was not offered as an extra-curricular activity on campus. I looked at what was offered, and Aikido seemed to be the most similar.
I was the newest member of the Aikido class. Classes were held on two nights during the week. Shortly after I joined, a guest sensei from Boston came to teach a Saturday morning seminar. He was an older Japanese man. A few of his black belt students were with him. One was a petite, Japanese woman, in her mid to late twenties.
When practicing with a partner, you rei (bow) to each other before and after your practice. You move your left leg beside your right, bring your hands to your sides, and bow from the waist. There's an unspoken level of trust in this. You each bow before the practice, to indicate you will do your best and will not intentionally hurt your partner. You bow after to show gratitude to each other.
I can't remember the specific technique being taught during the seminar. All I can remember is that when you applied it to your partner, he or she flew over your shoulder and landed on their back. I also don't remember my doing the technique. I think I was given the option of watching, given my lack of experience.
The guest sensei taught and demonstrated the technique. Next, one person was designated to apply the technique. Another person stood facing him or her. This was to be the attacker. The other students stood in a line behind the attacker, awaiting their turn.
The person at the head of the line would attack, and the recipient would use the technique to defend themselves. When done, the person attacking would get up and go to the back of the line. The next person would attack, and so on, until everyone in the line had attacked.
The person who had responded with the technique would then walk to the back of the line. The first person would then walk forward, turn to face the line, and prepare for the attack. This continued until everyone had the opportunity to stand at the front and execute the technique to each person in line.
The person now facing the front of the line was from our dojo. He was big and brawny. He did the technique with the first few men who played the attacker role. The next person at the front of the line was the Japanese woman. He responded to her approach with brute force. He slammed her hard onto the mat. Everyone knew he had done it intentionally.
The room was quiet as she quickly got up off the mat. She faced him, smiled sweetly, and bowed to him. I was impressed with her composure.
Eventually, it was her turn to face the line. I watched her closely. Her execution of the technique was flawless. It looked effortless. I realized she was the best student on the floor.
Big and brawny was now standing at the front of the line. His body language was tense. I knew he would do everything he could to make this difficult for her. He lunged towards her, using all his strength, and using his weight to increase his momentum. I held my breath, concerned for her.
I was surprised that a human body that size could be airborne at that height, and travel that distance. His body hit the ground half way across the dojo floor. It was not a graceful landing. It was a loud splat. He didn't move at first. I think he had the wind knocked out of him. Then, he turned and looked at her with a shocked expression on his face.
She waited until he picked himself up off the ground, and walked to stand in front of her. She smiled sweetly, and bowed to him. Then, she turned to face the next person in line. He was the only one she did that to.
Here are the lessons I learned from that seminar:
1) If you choose to behave like a jerk, you will always get your comeuppance. Sometimes sooner than you'd expected.
2) A visiting sensei usually brings his/her most advanced students. It's best to be polite and respectful to guests in your dojo.
3) Don't judge a book (or a petite Japanese woman) by its cover.
4) Proper technique is always more effective than physical strength. It requires the least effort.
I only stayed for one semester in that dojo. It wasn't a good fit for me. It was too different from what I'd known. I decided to look for another martial art.
Next week: Third Time's a Charm
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
It felt like a long training session at the ju-jitsu dojo. On this night, the focus was on practicing the hip throw (O Goshi). I was physically exhausted and my muscles were drained of energy. The person I was partnered with was close to my size, and even so, I had struggled to execute the throw. I felt defeated. I concluded that I wasn't capable of doing this technique.
After the class was over, I approached the sensei and expressed my concern. I told him that it was difficult for me to throw someone my size. So, it would be impossible for me to throw someone taller and heavier than me.
Sensei looked around the room. His eyes stopped on the tallest and most heavy-set man in the room. He called him over to where we were. Sensei turned to me and said, "Throw him."
I hadn't expected this. I looked at Sensei, at the man, and then back at Sensei. I said, "I don't think I can do that." Sensei repeated his command. I said, "I'm not strong enough to throw him." Sensei repeated his command a third time.
My first attempt was dismal, a complete failure. I was straining my muscles, using every ounce of my strength, and my opponent stayed where he was. He wasn't resisting. He just stood there, an immovable object. This confirmed what I knew. I could not do this technique.
Sensei gave me corrections about the positioning of my feet and my hip. He told me to do it again. The corrections continued after each of my attempts. I was tired, frustrated, and cranky. Sensei didn't care. His command became reduced to one word, "Again." He was relentless.
It was the longest half hour of my life. I was worn out, ready to throw in the towel. Then it happened. There's a moment in the learning process, after countless repetitions, when everything comes together. It happens when you're too tired to think anymore. You experience an AHA moment with your body.
It turned out to be one of the best half hours of my life. I learned what I was doing wrong. Previously, my understanding had been cursory at best. I lacked the details and refinement. Once I had those, I was surprised at how little effort it took to execute the hip throw.
I repeatedly threw my partner over my hip and onto the mat. Now, when Sensei said 'again', I was a willing participant. The ease and flow of my movements felt right. I could see the beauty of this technique.
The lesson ended when Sensei was satisfied that I knew I could execute the hip throw, regardless of the size and weight of my training partner. All three of us had big smiles on our faces.
Years later, at Teachers College, I learned the term for what Sensei did. He took advantage of a teachable moment. Such moments are unplanned and can have a profound effect on a student's learning.
A good sensei will believe in you, especially during those moments when you don't believe in yourself. He or she will push you to question and expand your belief system, about yourself and the world.
Never tell your sensei you can't do something, unless you are willing to stay on the dojo floor until you can do it.
Next week: Proper Technique
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
Before I trained in the martial arts, I was not 'athletic'. I wasn't toned or flexible, and I had enough coordination to make it through day-to-day activities. I had no sense of body awareness. None. Nada. Zilch. Looking back, I was always one step away from being an accident.
After we learn to walk, we go through life trying our best to not trip and fall. Falling and hitting the ground is a subconscious fear we carry with us through life. Intentionally and willingly throwing yourself on the ground feels unnatural. And yet, in the ju-jitsu class, that's what they were telling me to do.
The purpose of a break fall is to evenly distribute the impact of your fall so that nothing breaks. There's a science behind it, and thousands of years of history. In theory, it sounds great. The actual doing of it, the first few times, is intimidating.
First, the technique is described to you. Then someone demonstrates it. They make it look easy. Their movements are fluid and coordinated. You hear the loud slapping of the body and open palm hitting the padded floor. It doesn't look too bad, and they seem to be enjoying it.
Then it's your turn. All of a sudden, your body feels like a foreign object to you. There's so much to remember, and it's all new information. You hope to get all your necessary body parts to do the right thing at the right time. On your first attempt, your hope quickly fades. You receive corrections, watch more demonstrations, and do it again, and again.
You have to start low to the ground. That way, it lessens the fear factor. Gradually you work your way up to greater heights. At first, you hesitantly let yourself fall, as gently as possible. Over time, when you've learned the proper technique, the gentleness goes away. You throw yourself onto the floor, or you jump up and land on the ground.
Regardless of which type of break fall you are doing, you want certain parts of your body to make contact with the ground at the same time. Your head is never one of those parts. For the side and back break falls, you have to remember to hold your head up. And for the front break fall, it's important to turn your head to the side. In all martial arts, it's important to protect your head.
There's also the option of doing a forward roll. Personally, if I were to fall forward, given a choice between the forward break fall or the forward roll, I'd take the roll. It has a flowing and continuous movement, whereas the break fall is an abrupt stop. Also, with the roll, you end up in a kneeling position, which gives you greater options for your next move.
After a lot of practice and hard work, you experience that moment when everything comes together. It feels right. No one has to tell you that, not even your sensei (teacher). You know you've got it. Then you can throw yourself onto the mat with abandon. Better yet, other people can throw you down. Now, it's fun.
Break falls aren't just for in the dojo (training hall) and self-defense. They also come in handy during Canadian winters when you unknowingly step on snow-covered ice. As much as you try to regain your balance, there is the inevitable moment when you have to accept that gravity has won. That's when it's best to completely relax your body and break fall.
Next week: Never Say This to Your Sensei
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
She was a nurse who lived a few blocks away from the hospital she worked at. She had lived all her life in the city of Toronto. She was single, in her thirties. She had finished her night shift and was walking home to her apartment, as she had done many times before. This time, she didn’t make it home.
I read the newspaper article over and over, searching for details. She was sexually assaulted and then murdered. There was no suspect.
It happened the summer before my last year of high school. After graduation, I was planning to live in Toronto while I attended college there. Now, I was left with a feeling of dread, knowing I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of surviving there.
Up until that point, I had lived a sheltered life. I grew up in a small village, and then later lived in a rural area. There was no internet yet, so what I knew of the world was through reading and the news on television. There wasn’t the opportunity to meet new people, new situations, or new ideas. Also, strangers stuck out like a sore thumb, so crimes weren’t an issue back then.
I thought about it long and hard and decided I needed to learn how to defend myself. I pulled out the phone book and searched the yellow pages for martial arts schools. There was only one listed, a Jiu-Jitsu school. I didn’t know what type of martial art it was. Since it was the only one around, that’s where I went.
The training was difficult at first, as anything new is. Over time, as the newness wore off, I found I enjoyed it more than anything I’d ever done before. It was more than physical exercise. It was learning to move your body in ways that required concentration, controlled effort, and self-discipline. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable in my own body.
It’s been over four decades since I read the article about her death, and I still feel a sadness in my heart for her. Other than what I’ve written here, I don’t know anything else about her. I don’t even know her name. And yet, learning about the suffering and senseless death of a stranger changed the course of my life. Every time I step onto the dojo floor and rei (bow), I honor her memory.
In this blog, I’ll be sharing many of the lessons I’ve learned, and the experiences I’ve had over the years. The martial arts opened my mind and my life in ways I could have never imagined.
Next week: The Break Fall
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.